From: Biniam Tekle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed Jan 14 2009 - 12:43:20 EST
Young church, old traditions
Eritrean Orthodox Church in Kitchener follows religious laws shared by
January 03, 2009
Ten days ago, on the morning of Dec. 24, the sanctuary at St. Mary Eritrean
Orthodox Tewahdo Church in Kitchener was in a shambles.
About half of the pews were pushed back to the walls. Piles of drywall and
two-by-four building studs occupied space that's usually reserved for saying
prayers. Tools and scrap wood littered the floor.
But as workers hurried to build a new altar, Deacon Helmon Tekie didn't seem
too concerned about having the sanctuary ready for the Christmas Eve
After all, for him and many Orthodox Christians, Christmas at that point was
still two weeks away.
Many Eastern-rite churches, Orthodox and Catholic congregations, will mark
their Christmas this year on Wednesday, Jan. 7.
Although most churches in the West follow a calendar refined by Pope Gregory
XIII in the 16th century, many eastern churches observe holy days according
to the Julian calendar, which was commanded by Roman dictator Julius Caesar
in 46 BC.
Waterloo Region is home to Greek, Armenian, Coptic (Egyptian), Eritrean,
Ethiopian, Romanian and Serbian Orthodox congregations. For many, not all,
Christmas Day is Jan. 7.
Ethiopian and Eritrean churches usually recognize Jan. 7 as Christmas Day.
But in a leap year, every four years, they will celebrate it one day earlier
-- on Jan. 6.
This year, Christmas lands on Jan. 7.
Armenian Orthodox Christians, including a congregation in Cambridge, observe
Christmas Day each year on Jan. 6., which is also the feast of the Epiphany
marking Jesus' baptism.
And just to make things a bit more confusing, not all Eastern-rite churches
observe Christmas next week. Some celebrate Jesus' birth annually on Dec.
Eritrea is a small east African country with a long coastline on the Red Sea
opposite Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its western borders abut Sudan and
The Eritrean Orthodox Church is one in a group of churches -- which includes
the Eritrean, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, Indian (Malankara) and Coptic
Orthodox churches -- called Oriental Orthodox churches.
They're in full communion with each other, but not with Catholic or with
other Orthodox churches.
The Oriental Orthodox churches' predecessors fell out of communion with
fellow Christians at the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, over the specific
definition of the natures (human and divine) of Jesus.
Most churches teach that Jesus was both human and divine.
The Eritrean church, according to Tekie, doesn't differ.
"We believe our Lord Jesus Christ retained his humanity and divinity," Tekie
said. "He was God and man."
Churches that aren't in communion with each other over the definition
adopted at Chalcedon are in talks to broach their historic disagreements.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church is, as a self-governing entity, relatively
young. It was long part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church until the Eritrean
region of Ethiopia won its political independence in 1993.
Around that time, the Coptic Orthodox Church recognized the Eritrean church
as a self-governing body, then ordained bishops for the Eritrean church.
Seven of the Eritrean church's two dozen congregations in North America are
located in Canada.
Most Sundays, Tekie said, the six-year-old Kitchener congregation attracts
about 50 worshippers.
Despite political differences between Eritreans and Ethiopians, Tekie said
the Eritrean and Ethiopian congregations in Kitchener welcome each other's
members to various festivals.
"We invite each other," he said.
Eritreans and Ethiopians share religious history with Jews, Tekie said.
Eritrean Orthodox Christians still follow some Jewish religious laws. As
Jews do, Eritreans circumcise baby boys. Eritrean Orthodox adherents also
don't eat pork.
In the Book of Exodus, God instructs the ancient Israelites to build a tent
that contains a most sacred space called the "Holy of Holies."
Today, each Eritrean church includes an altar space called the "Holy of
In Scripture, a curtain separates the holy of holies from the sanctuary. The
Kitchener congregation's altar, a small room with three doors facing the
congregation, will also have curtains covering its doors.
The altar will eventually hold a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the
sacred box that held the stone tablets God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai.
But unlike Jewish congregations, Eritrean Orthodox churches regularly
worship on Sundays.
On Tuesday, members of the Kitchener congregation will gather for the
Christmas Eve service that will stretch from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Smoke from incense, rather than wood smouldering from the spinning blade of
a circular saw, will fill the air.
Chanting and prayers will be followed by readings from a book of saints and
from the Gospels. Tekie will deliver a sermon in the Tigrinya language
spoken by the congregation. He translates it into English for the younger
crowd, he said.
Because Christmas Eve this year lands in the middle of the work week, the
deacon expects only 25 to 30 people to attend. But he estimates twice as
many will join in worship on the following Sunday.
Parishioners won't take part in communion because only the church's ordained
priests and bishops, not deacons, are allowed to give holy communion.
After midnight, parishioners will go to the church basement to dine on
traditional dishes that include yogurt and goat meat -- a treat after
observing a vegetarian fast since mid-November.
Last week, on the morning of Dec. 24, the sanctuary was still in disarray as
volunteers cut wood and swung hammers.
Tekie, whose vocation is to spread hope, said he wasn't worried that the job
wouldn't be done soon.
"We're hoping by the end of the week," he said. "We're crossing our
St. Mary Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church:
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